Teachers may assume leadership at Portland elementary school

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PORTLAND — Starting next year, Reiche Elementary School may be run by a small group of teachers, rather than a full-time, professional administrator.

The School Board on Tuesday was scheduled to conduct a first reading of a proposal that would make Reiche a teacher-led school. 

The board will hold a workshop on the proposal on May 31, before taking a second reading and vote on June 7.

The board held a May 10 workshop on the plan, but decided it needed more information.

School Board member Ed Bryan, who served on an exploratory committee, said the answers to two of the biggest questions – justification of the change and evidence the model works – could remain elusive.

“It’s out of the box,” he said. “Because this is so new, there really isn’t a lot of data out there. There aren’t that many schools around the country that are doing this. And most of them started at teacher-led schools.”

Bryan said Reiche would be one of the first – if not the first – in the country to make the transition from a traditional, principal-led school to a teacher-leader model.

The exploratory committee has been studying the teacher-led model since former Principal Maria Gendron was reassigned last year from Reiche to the East End Community School.

Superintendent James C. Morse Sr. said Gendron cultivated teacher-leaders during her tenure at Reiche.

When discussing how to replace her, Morse said the teachers expressed interest in taking over leadership of the school.

“I was intrigued by it,” Morse said of the idea. “This could be a way for Reiche to stand out as unique.”

When Gendron took over at East End, three teacher-leaders were replaced with an assistant principal. That decision was made, Morse said, because the teacher-leaders were dependent on the principal, which will not be the case at Reiche.

The Reiche proposal was made after a group of teachers visited five teacher-led schools, including the Boston Teachers Union School and the Denver Math and Science Leadership Academy.

Morse noted that teachers and parents approached the idea with “healthy skepticism,” but ultimately decided over the course of 32 meetings that teachers could manage the school.

Morse said the Reiche proposal would turn over leadership to two teacher-leaders, but Bryan said leadership may be shared by three teachers.

According to school documents, the plan was endorsed by 82 percent of teachers, 57 percent of ed techs and 70 percent of support staff. Eighty-four percent of parents surveyed at a forum also supported the plan. 

Morse said the teacher-leaders would be elected annually by school staff.

Leaders would be supported by four committees comprised of teachers. The committees will focus on internal communication and climate; external communications and enrichment; instructional leadership; and professional development.

A leadership team will be formed by two teacher leaders, the committee chairs, a central office representative and a parent, according to the plan.

Teacher-leaders will receive stipends, but Morse on Monday couldn’t say how much. However, he said the new model will not cost more than the amount budgeted for a full-time principal, which, according to School Department documents, is $100,000.

Leaders will be released from their classroom teaching duties on a half-time basis to focus on the duties that would otherwise be performed by a principal. Morse predicted all teachers would end up with a larger work load.

Bryan said some parents have expressed concern about maintaining continuity in classrooms where teachers become leaders. But he said that impact may not be known until it’s clear who will be chosen to lead the school and whether their positions will have to be filled.

Morse said that both he and the teacher-leaders will be held accountable for student performance and school operations. The school must be run according to department policies and initiatives, and teacher-leaders must report regularly to the Central Office.

Morse said the benefits of a teacher-led model could include grassroots solutions to improve student learning, and the ability of teacher-leaders to hit the ground running because of their experience in the school, rather than having to “earn their stripes.”

“What we’re hoping for as a result from a teacher-led model is more enthusiasm for the direction of the building and support for all the initiatives,” he said.

Morse said the department intends to survey teachers and parents through the next school year to see if they still support the concept. Those surveys, along with test scores and other assessments, will determine whether the model is a success, he said.

The School Board will periodically review the program, too.

The state Department of Education Spokesman David Connerty-Marin said being a certified teacher leader would meet any state requirements for having a building administrator.

Bryan said the teacher-led model could be a great opportunity for Portland schools, even though it is not without its risks.

“I’ve come over these many months to believe the teachers in the school and the staff in the school can pull this off,” Bryan said. “And if they do, it could be such an amazing story.

“If it doesn’t work,” he added. “You just go back to the traditional model.”

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @randybillings.

This story was updated on May 17 to include a comment from the state Department of Education.